Do Things That Scare You

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." - Nelson Mandela

Fear. Everyone has it. It is a natural response to a perceived threat. It is an emotion that serves to protect us.

But fear has gotten a bad rap.

“Be fearless!” people entreat us.

“Don’t be such a scaredy cat!” they jeer.

The problem is, we confuse courage with fearlessness. But courage is not the absence of fear, as Nelson Mandela so beautifully stated in the above quote.

To do things that scare us, we don’t need to eliminate fear; we need to reframe the way we think about it.

Making Friends With Fear

In a letter posted on Facebook, author Elizabeth Gilbert explained how she has befriended fear, acknowledging it as a natural emotion that helps keep her alive. But she doesn’t allow it to drive her creativity.

Gilbert writes:

“I do this all the time with creative endeavors. I tell my fear that me and creativity are going on a road trip — and I INVITE my fear to come along with us. I explain to my fear that I won't try to kill it, or to exclude it. I explain to fear that it is very welcome to join us, and even to have a voice. But I also explain to my fear that it won't be allowed to make any decisions along the way.”

This may seem counterintuitive for those of us who have fought tooth and nail to get rid of fear.

Coming in contact with the thing you're afraid of

In the mental health field, exposure therapy has long been used to treat phobias or intense fears. The premise is simple: To overcome the fear, we must come into contact with the very thing we are afraid of, not avoid it.

For example, if you’re afraid of dogs, exposure therapy might start out with viewing a picture of a dog. Next, you might stand a few feet away from a dog. And eventually, you might pet a dog. The importance of this is to have good experiences, where you realize the dog is not going to hurt you.

But exposure therapy can work for much milder fears too. For example, one thing I’m afraid of is traveling to countries where I don’t speak the language. I’m always afraid I’ll get into situations where I can’t explain myself, or I’m worried I’ll try to speak a few words in the local language and the natives will laugh at me.

So I make myself do it. When I went to Paris, even though I was intensely afraid of being made fun of for not speaking French well, I still tried to anyway.

And guess what? I did get into situations where I couldn’t explain myself in French, but I ran into countless friendly Parisians who were patient with me and helped me anyway. And no one ever laughed at my attempts at speaking the language.

After that, as I traveled to more countries where I wasn’t fluent in the language, I found I didn’t have the same anxiety about it. Because of my positive experiences attempting the language in France, I landed in Italy and immediately tried out a few Italian words with shopkeepers.

If I had let my fear of not speaking the language stop me from traveling, I would have stayed home and missed out on enriching experiences abroad.

Why We Should Do Things That Scare Us

“If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.”

- Seth Godin

Of course, we shouldn’t do things simply because they scare us. That would be silly, reckless even.

But if the thing we are avoiding is something that is necessary for us to improve, if it is something that gets us closer to our dreams—then we shouldn’t let fear hold us back from it.

Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, who spent years in palliative care tending to people in the last moments of their lives, recorded the most common regrets of her patients in a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

She said the number one regret she heard from her patients was that they wished they’d had the courage to live their dreams.

When fear stands in the way of living our best lives, we have to tell it to move.

The Road to Success Is Filled With Baby Steps

Much like with exposure therapy, conquering our fears isn’t about taking a giant leap, but baby steps.

Maybe you don’t start with taking a solo trip to India, but with going on a road trip to a nearby town. Maybe you don’t start with running a marathon, but with running a 5K.

With small steps, slowly but surely, the fear will recede and the courage will show up.

Conclusion

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

- Mark Twain

Fear can be a useful tool. It keeps us safe. But when we let fear take the wheel and dictate our every move, when we let fear prevent us from pursuing our dreams—it’s time to tell fear to get in the backseat so we can do the driving.

Staying where we are and sticking with what feels safe may work for maintaining a comfortable life. Without taking any risks, we can easily coast along, watching opportunity after opportunity pass us by.

But we want to live our best lives, not just comfortable ones.

So do things that scare you, and you can live a life that frees you.